RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Brazil's Eurocopter EC725 Super Cougar production program is set to go into full swing this year after a deal worth more than $1 billion that saw off competition from rival U.S. and Russian manufacturers.
Brazil launched its extensive military modernization program a few years ago with the express aim of becoming a major hub for international technology transfers and a regional exporter of defense hardware and integrated software.
The "Project H-X BR" tactical transport helicopter competition featured three contenders, Eurocopter's Brazilian subsidiary Helibras, AgustaWestland and the Russian-built Mi-17.
The EC725 Cougar was seen to have an edge over its rivals from the start. Three helicopters of its Brazilian version, Caracal, conducted test flights as early as December 2010.
The EC725 Cougar is being built at Helicopteros do Brasil S.A., also known as Helibras, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eurocopter, which itself is a division of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.
Brazil sees a growing export market for the helicopter, 50 of which will be built starting this year, the company said.
Helibras leads the Brazilian market of the turbine helicopters in operation, with about 66 percent share of the military market and the rest in the civilian market.
So far the company, which has its main operations in Itajuba, in southwestern Minas Gerais state, has produced more than 500 helicopters for domestic use and export.
The EC725 Super Cougar evolved from the Puma range for military use. As a twin-engine aircraft that can carry up to 29 seated troops along with two crew, the helicopter is used worldwide for troop transport, casualty evacuation and combat search-and-rescue duties similar to the civilian EC 225.
Brazil has plans to use the helicopter for its expanding regional and border operations, part of the program for securing its Amazonian forests and energy resources and combating drug and people traffic.
Helibras has set its sights on boosting export prospects once the manufacturing operation develops. However, the first 50 or so of the helicopters due to leave the assembly line will meet orders already placed by the Brazilian air force, army and navy, making Brazil the world's largest user of the EC725.
Other major users of the EC725 Cougar are all based outside Europe or Latin America, including Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Mexico has 12 on order, but Brazil expects to start marketing its own version, Caracal, once its production goes into full gear.